Although more common in teens and young women, eating disorders are affecting a growing number of older women, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. The research, led by Cynthia Bulik, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, surveyed 1,849 women aged 50 years and older from across the U.S. The survey included questions about eating disorder symptoms, dieting and body checking behaviors, and weight and shape concerns. Among the sometimes surprising results, 13 percent of those surveyed reported eating disorder symptoms such as excessive dieting, binge eating, and purging; 62 percent said that their weight or shape has a negative impact on their lives.
“The disorders have serious physical as well as emotional consequences,” said Bulik in a June 21 interview with USA Today. “Part of my goal is to make this an issue all doctors need to be aware of regardless of a woman’s age. Many think eating disorders end at age 25. They exist at every age, we’re finding.”
Although eating disorders have a serious negative impact on health at any age, the problems are compounded in older women, whose immune systems can be weaker and whose bone density is often lower. Bulik often sees severe osteoporosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and cardiovascular health issues linked to eating disorders in older patients (American Medical Association online newsletter, July 9).
One of the country’s first residential treatment centers for eating disorders, the Renfrew Center reports a 42 percent increase over the last 10 years in the number of women aged 35 years and older seeking treatment at its clinics. Some of the center’s older patients have struggled with eating disorders or other weight issues for many years, while others developed an eating disorder for the first time later in life.
“We ask the question, what are the triggers to mid- and late-life eating disorders?” Bulik said in the USA Today interview. “They’re talking about divorce, loss, children leaving home, children coming home, being in the sandwich generation when you’re taking care of children and your parents…. Food can be seen as a way to regulate mood during these times.”
Some attribute part of the increase in eating disorders among older women to more frequent diagnoses based on doctors’ greater awareness of the issue. But whatever the cause, it’s clear that eating disorders are not limited to the young—and older women are seeking help more often as they struggle with weight and shape concerns.
What do you think? Have you noticed an increase in the number of older clients with symptoms of eating disorders? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!